Editor’s Note: Political science professor Dr. Marc O’Reilly recently led a group of Heidelberg students and alumni on a study-abroad excursion to Greece and Turkey. This is O’Reilly’s first-person account about the experience.
As a Canadian living and working in the United States, I am always somewhat dumbfounded when my American students refer to their country as the best in the world. Notwithstanding the subjective notion of “best,” invariably I ask, “Have you visited other countries?” Most Americans travel minimally, if at all, beyond their borders. With nearly 200 countries, several of which have existed in one form or another for millennia, one conclusion imposes itself: There is much to see and experience beyond the United States.
To underscore this truth, consider what the Heidelberg group I recently led on a tour of Turkey and Greece witnessed. The 14 students, two alumni, two chaperons (Drs. Julie O’Reilly and Courtney DeMayo), and I started in Istanbul, where we visited the incomparable Haghia Sophia, for centuries Christendom’s finest church and the Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s ultimate achievement. This architectural marvel, which the Ottomans converted into a mosque once they conquered Constantinople in 1453, continues to awe visitors. Nearby, we toured the Roman cistern, a delightful subterranean facility complete with memorable statues of Medusa. On that first day, we also had an afternoon beverage at the Blue House, a rooftop restaurant that affords its patrons a majestic view of the Bosphorus Strait, Sea of Marmara, the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia. The panorama confirmed Istanbul’s reputation as a remarkable convergence of land and sea, the only city in the world that straddles two continents – Europe and Asia. On the second day, we visited several signature Ottoman sites in Istanbul: Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar and the amazing Blue Mosque – where, as warrants the Muslim tradition, women wore head scarves while they marveled at the spectacular Islamic art and architecture.
Four additional days in Turkey yielded more visual delights and delicious food. In Bursa, the group admired the lovely Green Mosque, ate a wonderful doner dish and shopped for exquisite silk scarves in the quaint bazaar. At Troy, we saw the archeological remnants of one of the Ancient World’s most famous cities. In Canakkale, which overlooks the strategic Dardanelles Strait, we ate and shopped on the wonderful promenade. A couple of students visited Gallipoli, the well known World War I battlefield.
A storm curtailed the group’s visit to Pergemon, a prominent hilltop Ancient city with well preserved ruins, but a lunchtime stop at a local carpet factory proved memorable. While sampling some excellent Turkish apple tea and tasty Turkish pizza, the group learned about the art of carpet making and admired the different types and styles of carpets. Faculty and students bought some of the more affordable carpets. In Ephesus, the group experienced another famous Ancient city. The ruins, especially the Celsus Library and the Great Theatre, recalled the grandeur of the Roman Empire. Near Ephesus, we visited the house where the Virgin Mary lived during her final years.
Although Turkey is Muslim, the country is home to several important Christian sites. In Kusadasi, a bustling port city adjacent to Ephesus, the group bought its last Turkish souvenirs before embarking on its two-day Greek Islands cruise.
Stops in the Aegean Sea included Patmos and Santorini. Patmos is best known for the Grotto of the Apocalypse, where God spoke to the evangelist John, who then dictated the Book of Revelation to his assistant. The gorgeous Cycladic island of Santorini draws millions of visitors every year. The village of Oia (pronounced “Ia”), on the north end, epitomizes the Greek Islands. Its unforgettable whitewashed and pastel colored houses, ornate Greek Orthodox churches, and various alleys that yield breathtaking views, provide a visual cornucopia. Students swam in the sulphuric waters of this volcanic island and rode donkeys down from the main village of Fira to the point of embarkation.
Following the wonderful cruise, the group concluded its trip in Athens. A tour of the Acropolis, shopping in the Plaka district and a visit to the Acropolis Museum highlighted our stay. An excursion southward to picturesque Cape Sounion, home to the Temple of Poseidon, followed by a sunset dinner at a nearby restaurant, only enhanced our Greek experience. Fortunately, despite Greece’s current political and economic travails, we did not encounter any riots or other disruptions. Print headlines and conversations with our tour director underscored, however, Greek bitterness and despair.
After nearly a fortnight away from the United States, the group easily appreciated everything that countries such as Greece and Turkey offer visitors. The unforgettable sites and sounds (e.g., the call to prayer in Istanbul), the wonderful people and food and the realization that the world is not confined to North America and North American ways – all of these made for amazing experiential learning and a fantastic trip that Heidelberg students will forever remember.